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 Post subject: Classical Bonsai Award at 1st National Bonsai Exhibition
PostPosted: Mon Oct 13, 2008 9:50 am 
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Classical Bonsai Award at 1st National Bonsai Exhibition
by Peter Warren


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First, I would like to congratulate Bill Valavanis, his vast team of assistants and every one of the exhibitors for making the first National exhibition a success. There were many old, genuine bonsai in the exhibition and I was truly impressed, I learnt a great deal about Bonsai and Americans. The standard of trees was very high and judging each individual tree was very difficult.

Choosing the winner of the Yoshimura award however was easy. The decision was unanimous amongst the three judges, Seiji Morimae, Pedro Morales and myself; the Black Pine of Mike Page fulfilled all the criteria with ease. After the decision was made Mr. Morimae and I were asked, in a very polite way by many people who couldn’t understand the value of the tree, to explain the decision. I would like to thank all those who had the desire to learn and the courage to ask.

To understand why the tree was chosen I think it first important to understand the criteria of the award and who Yoshimura was and what he represented. The term “classical bonsai” is considered by some to be a euphemism for unrefined trees that have not been styled, wired and shaped into some obvious shape. Some people mistake classical bonsai for something that they have seen in a textbook. A triangular shaped tree with 1st branch, 2nd branch back branch is not a classical bonsai; it is a textbook bonsai.

Yoshimura Yuji was a man who understood the heart of bonsai in Japan over 50 years ago. He was born in a Bonsai nursery into a family that defined the aesthetic of the time. Kofu-en was the one of the top three gardens from the Meiji period up until the 1960’s. Yuji’s father was a man of incredibly refined taste and education. His clients included aristocracy and artists, the cream of Japanese society. The trees of the time were more than simply pretty trees; they were carefully crafted works of art, created in a pot over many years of hard work and suffering. In the natural movement of the trunk and branches they contained humanity not signs of the human hand. When looking at such trees the viewer feels in awe of nature, not the sculptor who created it as not one person created such masterpieces, the trees were old, established and had history. Many people had touched them and left their imprint in an indistinguishable way, sometimes for the better, other times for the worse.

The Kofu-en aesthetic was one of inner beauty over exterior prettiness, the human condition over human hands; favoring elegance over impact. When one looked at such a tree, your heart feels at rest and the wind can be heard blowing, becoming more than what can be seen in front of one’s eyes, the tree takes on an ethereal beauty. Yuji was taught this aesthetic and he taught this to the Western world, first in Japan and then in the US. He devoted himself to these aesthetic ideals and many of the finest quality bonsai in the US are directly descended from his highly refined eye. These trees will appear untidy, irregular and confusing to somebody unfamiliar with the aesthetic, which is much more than just a set of visual ideas, it represents a philosophy and an empathy with the natural world, in particular humanity. To truly understand the depth and inner beauty of such trees requires study of more than technique and form, it requires a study of bonsai history, knowledge of the people, the trees and the ideas of the time. This study is the refinement that is important for Bonsai, not wiring of the branch ends to create a pretty outline.

Bill Valavanis was lucky enough to have known Yoshimura and to have gone to the trouble of searching out the information, to have dug beneath the surface, to have travelled to Kofu-en many times, to have seen the trees and experienced the aesthetic first hand. Mr. Morimae apprenticed at Chikufu-en, a garden renowned for its refined and elegant style, he also knew Yoshimura’s father and was immersed in the “classical” bonsai world. Today Morimae is renowned in Japan for his highly refined taste, one only has to visit his shop in Ginza or look at his work to see this, and he has a deep respect and understanding of the meaning of Bonsai to the Japanese.

On a personal level I was able to study such trees by seeing them in old books, seeing the remaining trees in person but more importantly seeing the respect that such trees commanded amongst those people whose taste I admired. The trees that the Western world sees in exhibitions or in Kinbon magazines are completely different from the truly high class trees that are respected by the true lovers of bonsai. I saw my master make a financial loss on many “classical” trees simply because he wanted them in the garden to enjoy for himself. Out of 100 customers only one or two people had the ability to see the beauty in the thin trunk that had struggled over the last 150, to look beyond the obvious and experience all the tree had to offer; invariably these customers were usually too poor to buy them. These were the trees we put on display for ourselves when the gates were shut and we were sat around drinking beer and relaxing, enjoying bonsai ourselves rather than working. I was told tales of who owned the tree, where it went and what happened to it when the owner died. The simple trees without wire and pretence told me their stories in the movement of their branches and the flakes of their bark and then quietly got on with whatever else life had to throw at them. It is a hundred times harder to make such a tree than to make something which is thick, powerful and cleanly sculpted. Such trees are not made, they evolve, we are merely guides along their path, giving them water, food and the occasional helping hand.

The Yoshimura award was designed to be given to a tree which made the judges hear the wind blowing through the branches, one which told a tale in its bark and was an elegant and internally beautiful tree rather than an externally pretty tree with impact.

Walking around the exhibition at first, the only tree that stopped me in my tracks was Mike Page’s Black Pine. Sat quietly in a corner, squeezed between two other exhibits, it oozed character and elegance. It was an unusual tree to see, something that neither Morimae nor I were expecting to see amongst the hustle and bustle of everybody setting up the exhibition. It had something other than simple technique and form; it had the wind blowing through the branches. We both looked at each other and smiled.


Image
Mike Page and Seiji Morimae


After a long day of judging, the time came to sit down together and decide on the award winners. Thankfully, there was very little difference between the trees we all picked individually and the three of us were able to decide all the awards without outside influence. Bill remained absolutely tightlipped during our discussions regarding the Yoshimura award. It was not until afterwards that he told us the story of the Internet based criticism he had received.

What you cannot see in the small picture on the Internet is the absolutely sublime natural movement in the trunk, the flaky bark and the scars along the trunk. Bill said in one post that it was scar free but on close inspection, it had very old, very small scars, as old as me. In pictures, you cannot feel the history of the tree and be moved by something so thin yet so elegant. You cannot see the depth of the tree, both visually and spiritually. Here is a tree, which changes depending upon the viewing angle and position, and unfortunately, it was photographed at its worst angle. The photograph attached is a much better representation of how much character it has. The kink in the base of the trunk is impossible to recreate, the movement is a result of years of suffering, the bark texture speaks volumes. Compare this with painted white dead wood and a highly polished live vein, which has more character?

The day after the decision was made, Morimae asked Mike Page about the history of the tree and although initially shocked at his response, in retrospect it was not at all surprising. He purchased the tree 8 years ago after the previous owner had died, a very good friend of Mikes who had suffered from ill health in her old age and subsequently her trees, including this black pine, suffered. She had originally purchased the tree over 20 years ago from a second generation Japanese bonsai professional in the San Francisco area that had grown it as a bonsai for many years.

Another “coincidence” was the influence of Mike’s good friend Warren Clark who had taken classes in Tokyo run by Yoshimura as far back as 1951. All things considered, it is not at all surprising that it won the award, the tree told its story very well and very gracefully, without needing to shout or conform to any ideas that had been enforced upon it.

The tree is far from being perfect; the display is far from perfect. It has too many branches, it is top heavy and it needs more negative space. The green part of the tree needs to be altered slightly to truly bring out the character of the tree; the planting position could be changed etc.etc. This is not a criticism of Mike, simply an acknowledgement of the fact that it is not finished, merely on the path from life to death. Mike had added his part to its history and will add more before he inevitably passes on to the next life, he almost did when the announcement was made, but hopefully it will not be too soon! I hope that somebody who is sympathetic to the tree can take it on, continue to care for it and allow the spirit of not only Yoshimura but the many people who have touched and been touched by the tree, to continue to live within such a thin and fragile frame.

The purest enjoyment of Bonsai is a connection between the tree and the viewer. It comes into being when observed, not through critical eyes, but an open mind and a receptive heart. If you can be still in the presence of a truly great bonsai tree then it will teach you many things about life and about death, it will tell you its story. This cannot be done through a photograph, it can only be done in person and only if human constructs like design criteria and self interest can be forgotten. To those who cannot find the beauty in the simple, elegant movement in the tree should clear their mind entirely and reappraise their approach to Bonsai and life in general. Once all is forgotten, take a deep breath and look at the tree again.

Mr. Morimae summed it up best when he said, “There is no trace of ego in this tree”. For me, this is the essence of Bonsai and this is why I, Morimae and Pedro chose it for the Yoshimura award


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 Post subject: Re: Classical Bonsai Award at 1st National Bonsai Exhibition
PostPosted: Mon Oct 13, 2008 9:51 am 
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A full sized picture of the winning bonsai is attached here.


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classical_black_pine_winner.jpg
classical_black_pine_winner.jpg [ 724.82 KiB | Viewed 8291 times ]
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 Post subject: Re: Classical Bonsai Award at 1st National Bonsai Exhibition
PostPosted: Mon Oct 13, 2008 1:18 pm 
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Congratulations for Mike for winning the award in such a prestigious exhibit.
Also, congratulations to Bill, for having the courage to go "against the grain", so to speak, in selecting such a controversial tree.

Peter wrote a remarcable article here, it was a real pleasure to read it.

I just can't help but cheer for the thought that so many accomplished European, as well as American bonsaists, view the selection as an outrage and insult to their professional judgment. Some even call this "the emperor has no clothes syndrome", meaning that the few people who applaud this tree only pretend to see its virtues because a few insiders with exceptionally refined taste (such as the disciples of Yoshimura Yuji) declared it an exceptional tree.

I have no problem admitting that I was one of those who disagreed with the decision, although I am glad that I was not alone saying that the tree is a bit top-heavy, and the foliage can be improved. I have a good excuse though - in that it is nearly impossible to see all what Peter Warren so eloquently described in this exceptional article, from a small photograph. Picture offers none of the experience that I call "the presence of the tree". It is also hard to notice the character of the bark, from such a picture.

This tree is an example of the infinite multitude of experiences that a bonsai can offer. It shows that bonsai sometimes goes beyond the obvious. Art takes effort to create it, but also takes effort from the viewers to truly appreciate it. Many of us viewers are unconfortable to make that effort. We are stuck in our ways of seeing things.

I am glad that I did not see anything in this tree, because now I have a chance to re-examine the way I see bonsai. When you think that you know everything and you think you have seen everything, there must be something wrong.

I recognize that the nature of the arts is such that there is never an agreement amongst all who look at it. We don't have to like what other people like, but as people who appreciate the arts, we should at least try to understand why other people like it.


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 Post subject: Re: Classical Bonsai Award at 1st National Bonsai Exhibition
PostPosted: Mon Oct 13, 2008 2:08 pm 
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[


Last edited by Richard Patefield on Mon Apr 27, 2009 7:00 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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 Post subject: Re: Classical Bonsai Award at 1st National Bonsai Exhibition
PostPosted: Mon Oct 13, 2008 3:00 pm 
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Richard Patefield wrote:
That's not an accurate reading of the story as I know it - the insiders were 'swindlers', not people of refined taste (whatever that is).



I wouldn't exactly call the disciples of Yoshimura Yuji "swindlers". The point is a very common phenomenon in the art world: the trend-setters make a quality judgement about a piece of art, and a lot of people accept it as their own, although they don't really recognize the virtues themselves.The emperor in this case may actually have clothes, but the layman can't really tell. This is a modified version of the "emperor has no clothes" story :)

As to "people of refined taste", they are those who don't follow popular culture. Rather, their taste is a result of their culture (as in "being cultured"), knowledge, and wisdom.


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 Post subject: Re: Classical Bonsai Award at 1st National Bonsai Exhibition
PostPosted: Mon Oct 13, 2008 3:15 pm 
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Richard Patefield wrote:
We seem to be being told that the virtues of this tree are not in the plant itself, nor in the work the owner has done, so what exactly is being assessed?

R.


Here is what the article says:

The kink in the base of the trunk is impossible to recreate, the movement is a result of years of suffering, the bark texture speaks volumes. Compare this with painted white dead wood and a highly polished live vein, which has more character?

All the above are virtues of the tree itself.

Peter is also saying, that these virtues can be better appreciated in the context of history and tradition of bonsai, and bonsai aesthetics.
This is an obvious point that anybody who appreciates art, understands: the more you know about art, the better you will be able to appreciate a work of art. In other words, an education in the arts is not a pre-requisite for enjoying art, but it greatly enhances the experience. The same applies to bonsai: the overall experience is the combination of the virtues coming from the work itself, and the knowledge of other works.

Anyway, there is no point for me to argue with you about this, since I was one of those people who criticised this tree, just like you do. I am just saying that there is much more to bonsai than many of us one claim to know.


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 Post subject: Re: Classical Bonsai Award at 1st National Bonsai Exhibition
PostPosted: Mon Oct 13, 2008 5:12 pm 
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I did not necessarily agree with the decision of the judges either. But I think that this was because I was misunderstanding the meaning of "classical" with the meaning of the word "traditional" or "text book", and Peter states this in his article.

Quote:
A triangular shaped tree with 1st branch, 2nd branch back branch is not a classical bonsai; it is a textbook bonsai.



Richard Patefield wrote:
I'm not accusing anyone of anything, just pointing out that the main argument of the defense article is the same as in the story. I would have been much happier to have seen some score cards, if there were any, or the judging criteria, something like that.


Richard,
The judging Criteria was stated very clearly. I do not know what the judging sheets said, but I do know that at least two of the judges knew the winning tree for this award instantly.

Quote:
The Yoshimura award was designed to be given to a tree which made the judges hear the wind blowing through the branches, one which told a tale in its bark and was an elegant and internally beautiful tree rather than an externally pretty tree with impact.

Walking around the exhibition at first, the only tree that stopped me in my tracks was Mike Page’s Black Pine. Sat quietly in a corner, squeezed between two other exhibits, it oozed character and elegance. It was an unusual tree to see, something that neither Morimae nor I were expecting to see amongst the hustle and bustle of everybody setting up the exhibition. It had something other than simple technique and form; it had the wind blowing through the branches. We both looked at each other and smiled.


Mike,
I congratulated you privately and I will congratulate you here in public. Great job and my hat is off to you for the way you moved the judges.


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 Post subject: Re: Classical Bonsai Award at 1st National Bonsai Exhibition
PostPosted: Mon Oct 13, 2008 6:04 pm 
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 Post subject: Re: Classical Bonsai Award at 1st National Bonsai Exhibition
PostPosted: Mon Oct 13, 2008 7:15 pm 
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It was not a defense article as neither I, nor Mr. Morimae, nor Pedro Morales have anything to defend. It was a judgement based on criteria given to us.

Please take the time to read the article again, I do not say that you must forget the history of the tree etc. I said "only if human constructs like design criteria and self interest can be forgotten". I would also like to try and comprehend where and how you got the idea of anybody being a swindler.

This is as futile an argument as those people who claim "All Japanese Bonsai are (insert adjective here)" without ever having been to Japan or looking further than the incredibly limited resources available to them. As Atilla points out, the experience is deepened by study. I get bored at art galleries because I do not know anything about Dutch Renaissance painting, however I do not think it right to dismiss it as unworthy because I don't understand the criteria of why somebody else may find it attractive.

I apologise if I confused anybody with my mumbo-jumbo and mystification. That was not my intent.

The award was for a classical bonsai in the Japanese style that fit into the Kofu-en aesthetic. This tree did that better than any of the other trees in the running. Therefore it won.

If you do not want to pay even the slightest tip of the hat to Japan and the weight of history and culture that the use of the word Bonsai implies then please enjoy your hobby of "dwarf trees in a pot that look pretty". This is the same argument that applies to viewing stones vs. suiseki. The name implies a certain set of criteria, an acknowldgement of what has come before and a respect for that. So did this award.


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 Post subject: Re: Classical Bonsai Award at 1st National Bonsai Exhibition
PostPosted: Mon Oct 13, 2008 8:04 pm 
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I haven't said that anyone is a swindler. Attilla and I were talking about a story, I don't want to quote myself. Have a look back.


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 Post subject: Re: Classical Bonsai Award at 1st National Bonsai Exhibition
PostPosted: Mon Oct 13, 2008 11:41 pm 
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Attila Soos wrote:
I am glad that I did not see anything in this tree, because now I have a chance to re-examine the way I see bonsai. When you think that you know everything and you think you have seen everything, there must be something wrong.


These may well be the most intelligent and insightful words I have read on-line in ages, thank you for sharing them Attila.

Gentlemen, civil debate is the foundation of all knowledge.

Of course we have all read the article of Peter's, I myself have read it a few times and I will read it again, as it gives me a window into the mindset of the judges. I was also guilty of wondering why Bill selected this tree for the Sponsor Award in the contest here and also questioning the judges decision while at the exhibit. Peter has offered much to think about, and like Attila, I find myself reexamining my own beliefs, prejudices, and preferences. No matter what my own decision may be, I will come away better for it.



Will


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 Post subject: Re: Classical Bonsai Award at 1st National Bonsai Exhibition
PostPosted: Tue Oct 14, 2008 12:42 am 
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I for one have not looked at Bonsai in this light prior to this article! the article is exceptionally well written. breathtaking to tell the least.


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 Post subject: Re: Classical Bonsai Award at 1st National Bonsai Exhibition
PostPosted: Tue Oct 14, 2008 4:59 am 
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... without an explanation I can see were folks formed their opinion about this tree. I also understand as pointed out by both Peter and Attila, that in order to comprehend the depth of this tree is to understand the fundamentals of "classical" bonsai vs traditional.

Having said that, a lot of internet discussion surrounds the so called "helmeted" bonsai or "cookie cutter" bonsai. This probably stems from the inundation of what us Westerners have come to accept as "what" bonsai is or should be, rather than the mystical beauty of what bonsai really is or should represent.

Day in and day out, the majority of discussion on the Internet leads to "cookie cutter" trees and why not. Our tunneled appreciation of bonsai has led us down [b]that[/b] path so to speak. When we look at the styling advice given during the majority of these discussions, they all point down the road to a "textbook bonsai". Therefore why shouldn't they, since they were all created from the same mold so to speak, look similar in the end, or as some like to paraphrase "cookie cutter"?

In my humble opinion very few serious practitioners can reflect/represent this inner beauty that is discussed here. This last statement may very well lead to a heated debate, but in the end, bonsai is or should be a personal endeavour rather than one that seeks public acceptance or conformity in general.

Respectfully,
Rick


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 Post subject: Re: Classical Bonsai Award at 1st National Bonsai Exhibition
PostPosted: Tue Oct 14, 2008 5:01 am 
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From my point of view, I liked the article it is well written, and in the display picture the tree looks much, much better. I'm one of those that like to understand things. (my nature as a scientist). However I must convey with Atila

"I am glad that I did not see anything in this tree, because now I have a chance to re-examine the way I see bonsai. When you think that you know everything and you think you have seen everything, there must be something wrong."

To me it is like cubism, I like many styles of painting, but cubism is one I don't enjoy. I can read about it, I can understand the fundamental aesthetics of a good painting in the cubism style, but I simply don't like it. I the case of Mike tree, it is a tree I don't understand and that's fine. People have different taste and this is reflected in the differences in judging. Some trees, are just exceptional, like Min Lo ficus. I don't think anyone (educated or no) will disagree, that to me is really classical, as it will last trough the ages. But that's my way of looking things. I think however that Mike tree did something the others trees did not. And that is to have this vast set of arguments and feelings, this is typical in most art forms and I think that's great that a bonsai can create such a stir.
best regards and congratulations Mike!!!


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 Post subject: Re: Classical Bonsai Award at 1st National Bonsai Exhibition
PostPosted: Tue Oct 14, 2008 8:56 am 
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Peter Warren wrote:
If you do not want to pay even the slightest tip of the hat to Japan and the weight of history and culture that the use of the word Bonsai implies then please enjoy your hobby of "dwarf trees in a pot that look pretty". This is the same argument that applies to viewing stones vs. suiseki. The name implies a certain set of criteria, an acknowldgement of what has come before and a respect for that. So did this award.



The Western adoption of the Japanese word "bonsai" does not limit the world to use only Japan as a role model for appreciating trees in a pot. China has just as long and perhaps longer tradition of bonsai but the fact of the matter is bonsai is now a global art and persons from around the globe can adopt and do whatever they want regarding appreciating trees in a pot. The Japanophil approach is only one way.

I thought the show was great and perhaps the only general critique I would make was that this was a North American show yet the main emphasis seemed to be to mimic Japan. Until the west grows out of this mode we will not fully develop our unique approach to the art.

Regarding the Yoshimura award, this award was to honor Mr Yoshimura's spirit which by definition is going to be difficult to do since Mr. Yoshimura is no longer around and therefore subject to other's interpretation. Mike's pine does not adhere to the modern design. In listening to Mr. Morimae's comments on Sunday morning he seemed to like the trunk and the lack of a helmet on the tree. Yet he said "he would reduce the foliage by 50%. to bring out the character of the tree." That comment was very telling to me, he selected a tree over other trees that he said he would reduce the foliage by 50%. What is he really saying?

Mike's tree was interesting but if I were selecting the award I would have picked a Coastal Redwood that perfectly captured the essence of a full size tree. It had classical proportions and it did not have a helmet. That tree would have won in my book. Sorry no photo of it available.


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